This was written for the prompt Sweet | given by Girish Krishnakumar for Alphabet Sambar’s weekly themed mic room.
Sweet Tooth. I didn’t have one. There was no room for sweetness in my world that demanded the efficiency of kitchen logistics & transactions of nutrition. Or the speed of an ambitious life or the vigor of a metro home. Sweet felt like unnecessary distraction, with a cost greater than its resultant value.
I wear comfortable clothes, sensible shoes. I read fiction for leisure. I swim & when I can’t, I walk alone. I manage space, time, emotions & interactions with economy. But then, I upchucked my textbook life at 30 in favour of adventure. I braved the hellfires of singledom & stage turning them into salt & spice. I even turned the bitterness of bad relationships into writing & performance that brought me recognition & validation. I do know how to turn difficult-to-like tastes into something palatable. So I never thought to look to the easier things. It’s a statement of who I become, as much as what my tongue sought.
The years have received their toll of healthy living & planned decisions and have been kind on me. Even the pandemic, the hardest part for me was just letting what was already available to me, in. Rest. Quiet. Solace. Support. Companionship. It’s hard reversing old conditioning but now I find myself making more room for pleasure. For whimsy. Purposeleness. Even frivolity. Though planning for this does sort of defeat the purpose. That makes me laugh and even that is sweet.
I began reading poetry last year (for what is a poem but dessert for your mind’s meal?). Love poetry, rage poetry, anthems, odes in rhyme, meter, free verse extolling in English, Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Mandarin, Turkish, Spanish and more. There is sweetness to be won from the minds of those who bled words.
I call people to share moments from a nice evening. Sometimes I send them a message. Pictures, not perfectly shot, well-filtered ones showcasing my content expertise but grab-the-moment ones rejoicing in the technology & power in my hand. Joy is sweet. I enjoy flowers. Some even bloom in my spartan window; sweet things can grow in a bedrock of health. Queenly roses, pedestrian bougainville, nameless little local breeds. And now and again, even a sturdy herb plant, meant only for its health properties smiles with a white flower perfumed by the sweetness of basil. Yes, basil is sweet in fragrance, not taste or flavour. But sweet is sweet.
Today, I cooked my first meal in a new kitchen. Sprouts are very nutritious; also bland. The unfamiliar settings made me slow down. So ginger, garlic & spices went in with a prudent hand. When I ate, I had to chew a bit to find my reaction. It wasn’t too hot, too salty, too raw or overcooked. And under the surface flavours of ajwain seeds & dhania, the colour of pureed tomato, the texture of boiled sprouts, I found something that lingered.
Nobody told me that onions are sweet. Especially when they’ve been soaked patiently to dilute the tears, chopped finely avoiding sliced fingers & fried patiently over a slow flame to pale pink. Onion sweet. The kind that calls back to the hungry cry of your stomach when you smell them frying. A fleeting kiss on your tongue without the pungent breath. A lingering தித்திப்பு (tithippu) which just like the word in my home language, dances lightly on the tongue, leaving behind no traces of aftertaste.
I cook more now. And I send pictures of what I’ve cooked to different people, like I’m offering them a taste. Sometimes they reply with a picture or a description of their meal. From one of them, came the recipe for a more authentic baigun bhaja. A drop, a mere drop of jaggery in the batter makes for a more happy eating experience. Jaggery doesn’t jar the tongue like sugar does, with a reflux of acid. It makes all things nice and well, sweet.
Indian food doesn’t have the concept of dessert. Instead, sweet is blended into every meal. Jalebis with parathas for breakfast. A katori of payasam next to oorgai on a banana leaf. And coconut, bringing the winds from the Arabian sea and my hot island, scenting everything with the taste of home, home, home. Nostalgia, so sweet.
I took this photograph when I was talking to a friend. It had been an uncommonly hot, dry day, Mumbai turning to my hated Delhi in summer. But the evening brought breezes that wrap themselves around you like a hug, the way they do only when they arrive from the sea. And it made me think of my friend in Delhi, savouring his home tastes & sounds the way I do mine. In our conversation about hard politics, deep confessionals & more, I spotted a nariyal paaniwala across the road. And into my listening & my thinking, crept in the delicate sweetness of coconut water. That sublime flavour that marries the salt of the sea, the heat of the sun, the grit of sand and makes it comfort. That is the taste of my beloved Bombay and that will always be sweet to me.
I guess I don’t have to plan for sweetness. It dances on my skin, flutters on my eyelashes, swims through my bloodstream, trickles down my throat. A poem is still a poem even if you don’t read it. And the coconut holds its bounty even if you choose instead a fizzy, sugary drink. There’s sweetness everywhere, if you let it touch you.